Film series: SAFE

SAFE by Todd Haynes

On October 16th, Cindy Weber introduced the film ‘Safe’ directed by Todd Haynes and released in 1995. It is the first film in the program of films co-sponsored by Dukes Cinema and IAS program year New Sciences of Protection: Designing Safe Living. (see film schedule here>)

‘Safe’ = among the inspiration for the MOMA’s exhibition ‘SAFE’, which was among our inspirations for this program year. General question explored throughout the program year = Is ‘safe living’ conceivable, achievable, and desirable?

Director Todd Haynes films ‘Safe’ engages with each component of this question:

  • offers competing conceptualisations of what it means to be ‘safe’
  • explores how the ‘achievement’ of one form of ‘safe living’ – the suburban heterosexual home-life of a US housewife – is endangered (or revitalized – it depends on your point of view) by illness, to the point where (as one reviewer put it) ‘illness…unravels complacency’ and the suburban home is recast as ‘a wife-killing entity’
  • and it raises questions about the desirability of any of the explored forms of safe living, as suburban insularity gives way to a solitary isolation chamber.

‘Safe’ has been described as:

  • a film noir/horror film
  • an allegory for the AIDS epidemic
  • enviro-disease masterpiece
  • a heterophobic look at the oppression of (particularly patriarch) normalcy

The visuals of ‘Safe’ are extremely effective – beginning with the big, fake, glossy homes that introduce us into the world of suburban LA and ending with images in which scale, tone, color, and sociality are all reduced to the point of almost disappearing. For Haynes, both sorts of visuals form part of his futuristic vision of LA as ‘like an airport’ where ‘you never breath real air; you’re never in any real place; you’re in a transitional, carpeted hum zone’. This is the atmosphere of Safe.

When watching ‘Safe’, you’ll hear this hum and see and hear how it is conveyed:

  • as a soundtrack that sometimes emulates breathing and can leave us breathless
  • as opening credits that pulsate into place, then ‘evaporate into fumes’
  • and as what breaks into this hum – the ‘innocent’/transgressive sneeze in the title sequence that is the crux of the noir/horror plot

‘Safe’ is a film about illness, where illness is discovered ‘in the most unlikely place on the planet: in the safest, most protected, most comfortable, most sealed-off kind of life’ – an elite suburban home, an elite suburban life, an elite suburban wife. The film is filled with doubt – about safe environments, safe identities, safe living. It offers no reassuring closure, raising questions rather than answering them. As such, perfect film to open our series.

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